“A” is for Abalone


In October of 2016, I joined the Kelley House Museum in Mendocino as a volunteer where I research and write short pieces for the Kelley House Calendar, a column in the Beacon, our local newspaper. I’ll be sharing some previously written pieces and new subjects which come to mind for the 2017 A to Z Blog Challenge.

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Thanks and without further ado, here is my post for the letter A.

Abalone Love Part I

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Abalone shells cover an arbor at the Kelley House

What do people and sea otters have in common? Well, for one thing, the love of a particular single-shelled mollusk more commonly known as the abalone.

What many people don’t realize is how Mendocino became a premier location for abalone fishing, nor do they realize how lucky we are that our wise predecessors conserved this resource for us—their future generation.

Delicious and desirable, abalone grew wherever kelp was available. Pomo people collected and ate it and used the iridescent shells for trade. When the Russians settled at Fort Ross in Sonoma, they inadvertently contributed to a future bounty by hunting the sea otter to the brink of local extinction. By eliminating the abalone’s main predator, the shellfish grew unchecked for several decades before Mendocino was discovered by outsiders.

With a growth rate of about one inch per year and a lifespan of 30 to 50 years, it is easy to imagine local tide pools littered with abalone the size of dinner platters, but the first settlers had no interest in the strange and oozing shellfish.

The Chinese are credited with starting the abalone fishery, recognizing a favorite delicacy from home. They began to collect this and other shellfish in massive quantities, drying and shipping them to San Francisco where they were sent on to China. Soon, fears that the area would be irreparably depleted, combined with a series of punitive laws including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, ended all commercial collection in the intertidal zone.

By the late 1800s, as the Chinese were being pushed out of the market, Japanese fishermen arrived, bringing with them the hard helmet and diving suit. With a continuous air supply, divers could reach the ocean floor, and it was not uncommon for them to collect up to 2300 abalone per day. Sam Ware, a student at Mendocino High School, observed the Japanese encampment at Dark Gulch and wrote that the diver “…takes down with him a net-like basket, which he sends up in about twenty minutes, another being sent down while it is emptied. This holds about all four men can lift into the boat.”

Once hoisted from the water, the abalone were cut from their shells, salted, rinsed, and dried in the sun before being packed and shipped in burlap sacks. Shells were sent to England, where they were made into buttons and other fancies, while others were used as inlay in furniture, their nacre (Mother-of-pearl) finish prized. Abalone pearls, when they were found, were made into pendants and other jewelry.

But, by the fall of 1913, in response to ongoing fears that abalone would disappear in the same manner as the sea otter, new and more stringent local laws ended commercial abalone fishing in Mendocino. While recreational fishing continued—sometimes harvesting enormous quantities—the local abalone fishery was spared the fate of Monterey and other central California coastal towns. And who gets the credit for that intervention? Well, that is the subject of Part II of this series.

(Previously published in the Beacon, Nov. 3rd, 2016 and at the Making History Blog of the Kelley House Museum.)

“Z” is for Zenith

December 4th, 1915, was the final night of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, literally, its zenith. From there forth, everything was in decline and by January of 1916, the exposition was already being demolished, its buildings and other hardware were sold off bargain prices, and the land used was cleared and returned to its original owner.

Some buildings, such as the Ohio Building, were put on barges and shipped to other places around the Bay Area. The Ohio building stood at the edge of San Carlos airport where it had been moved in 1916. It was ultimately razed in the early 50s.

Within days of the exposition’s end, the results seemed to indicate it was highly profitable. The success of the exposition (as extolled in the article below) is nicely juxtaposed by this cartoon of poor, old Uncle Sam’s whose relative are depicted as he is pulled and pushed to an even bigger deficit, the Slough of Despond.

San Francisco Chronicle, December 7th, 1915.

San Francisco Chronicle, December 7th, 1915.

As early as eight days after the exposition’s end, the Massachusetts building was already up for auction.

Advertisement for the sale of the Massachusetts Building, December 12, 1915.

Advertisement for the sale of the Massachusetts Building, December 12, 1915.

William D’Arcy Ryan, the mastermind of the innovative indirect lighting which dazzled crowds at the exposition was advertising the sale of Novagems from the Tower of Jewels.

Ad for sale of Novagems. Source: San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 12th, 1916.

Ad for sale of Novagems. Source: San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 12th, 1916.

Everything was for sale or so it seemed. For the adventurous, there were even oddities for purchase such as the alligator farm listed below.

From the classified ads, San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 19th, 1916.

From the classified ads, San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 19th, 1916.

Artifacts from the exposition made their way into many other hands. Some of these items are included in this article from the San Francisco Chronicle which has the best list I’ve seen so far on this subject. Others, though, seem never to make these lists (such as a sculpture at Sequoia High School in Redwood City whose existence I’ve been trying to confirm with a local historian. As recently as February, I had heard at our local history reading room that someone in the Edgewood Road area of San Mateo County believed they he have one of the other Japanese buildings from the fair.

One final thing, this recently released simulation gives you an idea of what it would be like today were we able to return to explore the exposition grounds.

“Y” is for Yacht Harbor

Palaces of Agriculture and Transportation from the Yacht Harbor, Pan.-Pac. Int. Exposition, San Francisco, 1915. Source: PPIE100.org

The Yacht Harbor of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was built close to Marina Green. From here, cargo was offloaded and moved to locations around the exposition grounds.

To get a better sense of how the exposition looked, watch this short film from the time of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Follow the Overfair Miniature Railway, enjoying views of the exposition grounds as you go. In the last minute, you’ll come to images along the waterfront and the harbor.

For more information about upcoming events in the centennial celebration of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, visit the website at http://www.ppie100.org for a host of resources, images, and activities for your enjoyment.


View of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition grounds, 1915. Source: The Library of Congress.

“X” is for X-ray

I wasn’t sure I would be able to find a topic relevant to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition for the letter X. Turned out my instincts was correct. So far, I’d been unable to find anything listed in the indices of my favorite books.

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 8.51.27 PMI started thinking about X-rays because they are so obvious. I longtime fame of Madame Curie, I remembered something about her and the Xray from one of my childhood favorites, a ladybird book.

Growing up in Ireland, my mom always gave me a couple of Ladybird book at Christmas and on my birthday. These thin books were a sort of precursor to the Dorling Kindersley (DK) Books in topic though focused on a single story and without all the callouts and extensive photography. Both series are wonderful for children.

Madame Curie driving an Xray equipped vehicle in World War I

Madame Curie driving an Xray equipped vehicle in World War I

I tried a few searches for the topic of X-rays and the PPIE, and was surprised to learn something new: the Panama-Pacific International Exposition had a working X-ray machine in its hospital and several manufacturers were at the expo selling similar machines for use in clinical settings.

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The Adjuster, Vol. 50, p. 127, 1915

JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 66, p. 53

JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 66, p. 53

“V” is for Virtual Tour

The Panama-Pacific International Exposition covered more than 600 acres of land fronting the marina and reaching into the presidio. To get a sense of the layout and orientation of the exposition, the San Francisco Library offers this map by which you can see where buildings are located.

“U” is for Underwood

At twenty-one feet wide and fourteen tons, the Underwood Typewriter at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition made an audible thudding sound as each key was struck to the six-inch wide typewriter ribbon which hovered over the nine-foot wide piece of paper carefully fed into the typewriter.

Each day, a recap of the news was displayed, typed in letters three inches tall.

It’s most famous message was written the day after the sinking of the Lusitania. That message is displayed below.

“T” is for Tower of Jewels

The Tower of Jewels of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was described by Ansel Adams as a huge geegaw and many people agreed with him. Whether liked or disliked, the tower–at 435 feet high–stood high above the city and was even visible seventy miles out to sea according to one report.

As one of the few buildings at the PPIE which had a steel interior frame, it’s size fluctuated as much as a few inches depending on the weather.

For more about the Tower of Jewels, click here.